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Traditional publishers’ ebook sales drop as indie authors and Amazon take off

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Ebook sales are dying. Ebooks are insanely popular.

If the short definition of cognitive dissonance is holding two contradictory ideas to be true, ebooks are about as dissonant as digital content gets.

Yet ebooks may also represent a chapter in the still-being-written story of how keeping track of what’s happening with content hasn’t always kept pace with the technology that’s transformed it.

Let’s start with the bad news. Two new sets of numbers covering 2017 show ebook sales are on the decline, both in terms of unit and dollar sales.

The first, released in April by market research firm NPD’s PubTrack Digital, saw the unit sales of ebooks fall 10 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. In absolute numbers, that meant the roughly 450 publishers represented saw ebook sales drop from 180 million units to 162 million over a year’s time.

The second, just released by the American Association of Publishers, reported a decline in overall revenue for ebooks, a year-to-year decrease of 4.7 percent in 2017. AAP tracks sales data from more than 1,200 publishers.

This ebook decline occurred in an overall publisher revenue environment that AAP said was essentially flat in 2017. So some other kinds of book formats that AAP watches, like hardback books, went up as ebooks went down. For its part, NPD says when combining print and ebook unit sales, ebooks’ percentage of the total dropped from 21 percent in 2016 to 19 percent in 2017.

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It turns out this downward ebook trend isn’t new. It may actually be an improvement, of sorts. “The pace of ebook decline appears to be cooling,” AAP’s Marisa Bluestone said, noting 2017’s drop was, “significantly less than the double-digit declines experienced in 2015 and 2016.”

Among the categories showing a decline in both NPD’s and AAP’s figures were kids’ ebooks. Children’s ebooks had the most dramatic decline in unit sales, and children’s/young adult ebooks have suffered double-digital revenue drops every since year 2015.

And yet, NPD reports, even though it’s also declining, adult fiction remains the most popular ebook category, with 44 percent of all adult fiction sales in digital form.

On the surface it would seem like all of this is going to come as a surprise to boosters who thought ebooks would replace traditional paper book publishing completely.

But there are three key words to keep in mind: “traditional book publishing.” And that’s the good ebook news.

Because the very same technology that allowed traditional publishers to create and sell ebooks also allowed authors to do the same — directly to readers.

NPD and AAP don’t measure those indie sales. Centralized reporting of direct-from-author sales is tougher to come by, but by all anecdotal measures the independent market has taken off, notably in the also-still-large category of adult fiction.

(An aside on terminology: When at a book launch or retro cocktail party, you’re likely to find that writers who sell their work directly to readers may prefer being called “indie” or “independent” authors, not “self-published” authors. To many, “self-published” still implies crappy work being published by a vanity press which makes its money taking cash from writers, not readers, just so said writer can have ego support in book form.)

One source of numbers for online book sales, including for indie ebooks, is the website Author Earnings. It recently estimated that traditional publisher reporting is, “now missing two-thirds of U.S. consumer ebook purchases, and nearly half of all ebook dollars those consumers spend.”

For online sales of adult fiction, ebooks outsold print for Q2-Q4 2017. (Author Earnings chart)

Certain adult fiction genres are standouts. “Ninety percent of all romance purchases are ebooks,” the site’s latest report for Q2-Q4 2017 stated. “And we can see that science fiction and fantasy, with roughly 75 percent of sales now ebooks and audio, is not that far behind.”

For all categories of ebooks, Author Earnings figures purely “indie” publishing accounted for at least 38 percent of ebook units and 22 percent of ebook dollars in the last nine months of 2017. And that doesn’t include micro presses, Amazon’s imprints, and what it calls “single-author mega imprints” (think J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore).

“The indie share of the entire U.S. ebook market … now looks like what the indie share of Amazon alone used to be,” Author Earnings concluded. “In other words, far from losing ground, the overall indie market share has grown.”

J.K. Rowling’s “single author mega-imprint,” Pottermore.

So you may be wondering: Are people buying more ebooks or more print books, overall? It’s hard to tell, across all kinds of books. Author Earnings doesn’t track physical bookstore sales, and NPD and AAP only track traditional publisher sales.

But the democratization of ebook publishing is borne out by the authors themselves — and their publishing channels.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), an association of professional writers, began accepting indie publishing credits for membership in 2015. Last year, SFWA surveyed its more than 1,700 members. It found that 14 percent of members characterized their career as “indie,” 38 percent as hybrid (both indie and traditional), and 48 percent as traditional only.

Or, put another way, more than half of SFWA’s membership has done some kind of independent publishing. Importantly, SFWA said, there was no apparent difference in range of income between indie and traditionally published members.

Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon distributes a lot of independently published ebooks, made it a point to note in his annual letter to shareholders that, “Over a thousand independent authors surpassed $100,000 in royalties in 2017 through Kindle Direct Publishing.”

SFWA President Cat Rambo. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Part of the apparently increasing shift of authors to indie status may be about that money. “In traditional publishing, the writer sees a sliver of the profits — 5-15 percent,” SFWA President Cat Rambo, herself a hybrid author, told me. “In small press publishing, that number goes up significantly, and indie writers get to keep the biggest portion of the pie.”

Rambo said there are reasons to stick with traditional publishers, even for ebooks, such as discoverability of an author’s books through established marketing and distribution channels. “The other advantage is expertise in things many writers lack: book design, editing, formatting, cover work, etc.,” she said. “That’s work, real work, and many people would rather spend that effort on writing.”

But Rambo also suspected the decline in traditional publishers’ ebook sales may due to pricing, a potentially Titanic-sized problem of publishers’ own making.

“When I see an ebook that sells for twice the price of the paperback version, either someone has lost their mind, is asleep at the wheel, or is deliberately steering the ship towards an iceberg,” she said.

That’s led Rambo to buy more less-expensive, indie-published books to read on her tablet. And ebook reading does appear to be at least holding steady, reflected in climbing digital circulation at public libraries last year.

But the future of ebook publishing may increasingly belong to the independent author, especially as traditional publishers shift more marketing weight onto the writers while charging a premium for their traditionally published product.

“The publishers who treat writers like partners in this industry have become rarer,” Rambo said.

That, combined with more cash and control, seem to be doing a lot to spur a growing independent streak in ebook authors.

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